Strategic thinking emphasizes the need to balance today’s performance with future opportunity in order to manage risk and navigate through the uncertainty of the business landscape. The ability to think strategically sparks new ideas and future business propositions that are the lifeblood of long-term success, but many CEOs and senior executives continuously struggle to look past the present and put the future in focus. In fact, Chief Executive has previously reported that a staggering seven out of 10 leaders don’t consider themselves to be strategic.
So, where have all the strategic leaders gone ?
The reason for this gap in strategic leadership is simple — the ability to think strategically is not naturally developed on the road to the c-suite. In fact, research shows that more than 60 percent of leaders say their organizations have failed to invest at the required level to build strategic talent in support of long-term growth, and more than 70 percent of leaders report struggling to develop strategic leaders within their organizations. Strategic thinking skills are not developed solely as a virtue of experience or promotion either. Rather, they must be actively and purposefully practiced.
At the same time, however, strategic thinking can be quite elusive and the concept of being “strategic” is often overused or misused. What does it really mean to be a strategic thinker ?
Based on two decades of experience as well as targeted research with more than 20,000 professionals in 176 countries around the globe, we have identified six skills that, when mastered and applied together, allow leaders to truly think and act strategically :
- Anticipate : The ability to foresee changes at the periphery and adapt to evolving conditions is imperative. Embrace the uncertainty in the marketplace as a source of potential advantage, rather than a threat, and stay vigilant in monitoring emerging trends both within and outside your industry that might blindside the organization or uncover opportunities for innovation.
- Challenge : Rather than accepting conventional wisdom at face value, challenge long-standing assumptions and examine sources of uncertainty to understand how they may impact expected results. Re-frame a problem from several angles to understand its root causes, and seek out diverse views to see multiple sides of an issue.
- Interpret : Strategic thinkers continually demonstrate curiosity to connect multiple data points in new and insightful ways to make sense of complex, ambiguous situations. Use both analytic reasoning and seasoned intuition to recognize meaningful patterns, and test multiple working hypotheses before coming to any conclusions.
- Decide : Decision-making is an important aspect of strategic thinking, and it is necessary to show the courage to set a distinctive strategic direction and make tough choices, even with incomplete information. Balance long-term investment for growth with short-term pressure for results when making decisions, and balance speed and rigor when making complex decisions, especially in fast-moving environments.
- Align : Even the most strategic leaders must engage stakeholders to understand change readiness, manage differences and create buy-in to ultimately drive the organization forward. Identify those who have a significant stake in change initiatives or strategies, and assess stakeholders’ tolerance of and motivation for change to pinpoint and address conflicting interests. By rallying the team around a compelling strategic vision, you will ensure the right capabilities, resources, commitments and accountability metrics are in place to implement strategic initiatives.
- Learn : Continuously reflecting on successes and failures to improve performance and decision-making is key to being strategic in the long-term. Learn from interactions with various customers, partners and market segments to better predict industry shifts to make your company more adaptive in the face of change and competition. Don’t be afraid to encourage experiments as a source of innovation, and conduct ongoing check-ins and after-action debriefs to surface early indicators of success and failure.
Consider this framework as you hone your own strategic capabilities and work with others throughout the company to develop the strategic skill-set of rising leaders.
In doing so, you and your staff will be better prepared to anticipate market change, seize profitable opportunities and adapt your business to consistently win over time.